Robert Lowell would be 81

Today is Robert Lowell’s birthday. It’s hard to resist quoting “For the Union Dead,” but instead here’s the strange closing of “Beyond the Alps,” which has stayed with me, and which appears off to the side of my thoughts occasionally and unexpectedly:

Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up

like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

What does it mean, though? I’m not sure. A vigorous debate on this point was held in the letters column of the New York Review of Books in 2003, in response to James Fenton’s essay on Lowell’s collected poems.

Via Time Magazine’s open archive, a 1964 review of For the Union Dead.

And while we’re on the subject of Alps and great, discomfiting endings to poems, here’s “Work Song,” by Mark Levine. Thanks to Daily Miltonian for putting the full text online. Astonishingly, his collection Debt, which leads off with “Work Song,” appears to be out of print. I know, I know, nobody buys poetry books — but back when I knew a lot of people who did buy poetry books, everybody was buying this one.

“Work Song”

by Mark Levine

My name is Henri. Listen. It’s morning.
I pull my head from my scissors, I pull
the light bulb from my mouth–Boss comes at me
while I’m still blinking.
Pastes the pink slip on my collarbone.
It’s OK, I say, I was a lazy worker, and I stole.
I wipe my feet on his skullcap on the way out.

I am Henri, mouth full of soda crackers.
I live in Toulouse, which is a piece of cardboard.
Summers, the Mayor paints it blue, we fish in it.
Winters we skate on it. Children are always drowning
or falling through the cracks. Parents are distraught
but get over it. It’s easy to replace a child.
Like my parents’ child, Henri.

I stuff my hands in my shoes
and crawl through the snow on all fours.
Animals fear me. I smell so good.
I have two sets of footprints, I confuse the police.
When I reach the highway I unzip my head.

I am a zipper. A paper cut.
I fed myself so many times
through the shredder I am confetti,
I am a ticker-tape parade, I am an astronaut
waving from my convertible at Henri.

Henri from Toulouse, is that you?
Why the unhappy face? I should shoot you
for spoiling my parade. Come on, man,
put yourself together! You want so much to die
that you don’t want to die.

My name is Henri. I am Toulouse. I am scraps
of bleached parchment, I am a standing militia,
a quill, the Red Cross, I am a feather
in my cap, the Hebrew Testament, I am the World Court.
An electric fan blows
beneath my black robe. I am dignity itself.

I am an ice machine.
I am an alp.
I stuff myself in the refrigerator
wrapped in newsprint. With salt in my heart
I stay good for days.

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2 thoughts on “Robert Lowell would be 81

  1. John Cowan says:

    Here’s a few endings that seem to me to fit:

    I asked his work; he dealt in coal / And shipped it up the Tyne, he said.

    “You’re wounded!” “Nay,” the soldier’s pride, / Touch’d to the quick, he said: / “I’m kill’d, Sire!” And his chief beside, / Smiling the boy fell dead.

    But answer came there none / And that was scarcely odd, because / They’d eaten every one.

    Fiddle, we know, is diddle / And diddle, we take it, is dee.

    But the old man would not so, but slew his son / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

  2. Steve says:

    I think Lowell, who knew his classics, imagined Greek (and by extension other antique, e.g. Etruscan) black-figure (as opposed to red-figure) ceramics (it looks as though there is such a thing as Etruscan black-figure ceramics). It seems to me that Paris is “breaking up” as the train approaches the city because the initial unity the city presents from a distance (like the supposed unity of Western culture in Catholic Europe) dissolves, as we get closer to it (or as we approach the present) into wars and representations of wars.

    Not only did everyone buy Levine’s first book: half of us (including myself) imitated it. Repeatedly. In fact, some people still do…

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